The artist’s bucolic canvases, populated with his famous grazing cows and sheep, embody high Victorian sentimentalism that has declined in popularity in recent decades. Such subjects are a world away from the edgy art that succeeded it in the 20th century and are now more dominant on the domestic secondary market.
Yet, Cooper’s recognition as one of the great animal painters of Victorian England (so skilled that fake copies of Cooper’s cows were routinely made, prompting the artist to invite owners to send in their pictures for authentication) has ensured he remains a significant figure in the canon of English rural painting.
Since the turn of this century, the artist’s best works have, on occasion, set pulses racing: most notably at Christie’s in 2003 when a scene of sheep exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1875 sold for an auction-record £150,000 in a sale of Victorian pictures from The Forbes collection.
On the whole, however, his niche cattle subjects have struggled to appeal to modern tastes and his value at auction has dipped accordingly.
A current snapshot of Cooper’s secondary market was provided on August 23 by Golding Young & Mawer (20% buyer’s premium) in Lincolnshire, which offered a private collection of 13 works and several reference books on the painter.
The avid Cooper collector had assembled the group over the last 30 years, scouting out pictures in the UK, America and Switzerland.
All eight oils, four watercolours and one drawing got away for a combined £38,910. “Prices do seem to have changed over the years for Cooper,” said GY&M auctioneer William Gregory, “but there was a good response to this collection from the trade and from collectors using all methods of bidding.”
Modest estimates helped the cause here, as did the group’s inclusion in Thomas Sidney Cooper His Life and Work, a tome published in 2011 by Cooper authority Kenneth Westwood.
Leading the way was an early 2ft 3in x 2ft 11in (69 x 89cm) oil on canvas painted in 1832 of cows grazing near Canterbury, not far from where the painter lived. These early works were created after he returned from Brussels, determined to act on Eugène Verboeckhoven’s suggestion of concentrating on cattle subjects. They were well received by critics, fine art dealers and collectors alike and quickly established Cooper’s reputation as an animal painter par excellence.
Acquired at Koller in Zurich in 2009 for a premium-inclusive SwFf30,000 (around £17,960), it sold at GY&M for £9000 against a £6000-8000 guide.
Also selling above estimate at £7000 was a larger and later wintry work titled To Market in a Snowdrift (The Wintry Road to Market) that had hung at the Royal Academy in 1888.
The signed 2ft 5in x 3ft 3in (74cm x 1m) oil on canvas had sold at Phillips in 1982 for £9000.
More modern taste
Catering to more modern tastes in the sale was a late work by the Uruguayan Constructivist painter José Gurvich (1927-74), whose dreamlike canvases have been compared to fellow Jewish painter Marc Chagall.
Dated 1970, the 10 x 13in (26 x 34cm) watercolour depicts New York, where the artist moved to that same year, living there until his untimely death four years later at the age of 47. Fresh to the market from a local private collection, it sailed to £9000 against a £1500-2000 guide.
Elsewhere, a well-presented mid-19th century view of Florence by the relatively obscure painter Giovanni Signorini (1808-64) nearly doubled its top guide to sell for £4600 to a private buyer. The signed 22in x 2ft 3in (56 x 70cm) oil on canvas from 1852 needed some restoration, but its appealing subject matter and decorative ornate frame was what made the difference.